Since the San Jose Sharks shifted Brent Burns from defence to forward, the NHL team has been flying with a 26-9-2 record, including a remarkable 12-0-1 this season with him in the lineup.
If a San Jose Sharks teammate had not been injured in practice last March, Brent Burns may still be patrolling the blue-line for the elite NHL club.
"Sure, I remember," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan replied on Tuesday in Toronto, when asked about the circumstances under which he approached Burns about making the shift from defence to right wing last March.
"We had a player leave practice. I can't remember if a puck hit him in the face, but he left practice. I asked Burnsy to jump up and take some line rushes."
McLellan liked what he saw. The Sharks were struggling at the time and had depth on defence. So after practice, the player and coach skated around the ice together and discussed a permanent change.
Playing up front was nothing new for Burns. After skating on defence in Tier II for the Couchiching Terriers, he played some forward the following year in major junior with the Brampton Battalion. He has gone back and forth ever since, whether it was with his first NHL team, the Minnesota Wild, or in the AHL with the Houston Aeros.
Burns played for the Aeros during the lockout-cancelled NHL season of 2004-05 and saw some action up front, too. His coach that season in Houston was McLellan.
The shift with the Sharks has been seamless. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Burns and centre Joe Thornton have worked well together. So well that Burns's days on the blue-line are likely finished.
"We've left that door open," McLellan said, when asked if he could see a day when Burns would return to play defence. "But I think he's well on his way to establishing a dominant career as a forward. I don't know if we want to derail that."
The 28-year-old Burns is a free spirit with an easygoing manner. He loves wildlife and has his own zoo of dogs, birds, snakes and other animals at his Minnesota home as proof.
Usually, he has wild hair or a shaggy beard. He has a maverick mentality. These days, however, Burns sports a close-cropped mane. Still, his open-minded attitude has been a big factor in making this transition to forward work.
"I've always been a bit of a utility guy," he said, when asked about the switch to forward from defence.
"It takes time for sure [to adjust]. But playing with guys who are so skilled and winning makes it easier. I've always been a guy who doesn't care what position I play, I just want to play."
His physical play, size and shot have allowed Burns to succeed up front and become a modern-day Red Kelly.
The Hockey Hall of Famer won four Stanley Cups and a Norris Trophy with the Detroit Red Wings. Then he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs and switched to centre because then coach Punch Imlach felt Kelly was the ideal player to check legendary Montreal Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau.
Kelly went on to win four more Stanley Cups in Toronto.
That's the one trophy the Sharks have yet to win. They have done pretty much everything else but hoist the Stanley Cup.
Burns certainly has contributed to the club's regular-season success. Since he was moved to forward the Sharks have gone 26-9-2, including a remarkable 12-0-1 this season with him in the lineup.
"You hear the way guys talk about our team and our four lines," said Burns, who missed 13 games with a facial injury earlier this season. "I think that's all it is. When you have all the pieces together, when we have all the guys in the lineup, we can play all four lines against anybody."
Tim WharnsbyTim's worked the sports beat at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Sun, specializing in Canada's one true sporting obsession - hockey. He knows the players, the coaches, the backroom boys and most importantly, the fans. That's what he brings to his stories. Knowledge, fairness and understanding are trademarks of a Wharnsby story. That's what you will get here as he writes for CBCSports.ca.
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